Region’s coal riches renewed

TRIADELPHIA – With one of the most productive coal mines in the state and an ongoing oil and natural gas boom, state Senate President Jeff Kessler said Marshall County is poised to become the richest county in West Virginia within the next decade.

His remarks came Thursday as part of a West Virginia coal forum at West Liberty University’s Highlands Center. The session’s theme was “The Importance of Coal Exports.”

Kessler pointed out that Marshall County – home to Consol Energy’s large McElroy and Shoemaker mines – recently became the top coal-producing county in the Mountain State. High levels of production mean good-paying jobs with benefits for residents, he noted. Kessler said 30,000 West Virginians actually work within the industry, while another 63,000 are employed in related fields.

Coal production also leads to additional tax dollars for the state and region. Kessler, D-Glen Dale, cited coal severance and business taxes as vital sources of revenue for state and local budgets.

Coal also accounts for 99 percent of all electricity generated in the state.

“At the end of the day, coal still keeps the lights on,” he said.

But Kessler also acknowledged the coal industry has challenges to overcome, particularly in the form of federal environmental regulations. He pointed out Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state officials recently met with new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“I’m told that it was a very informative and a very, hopefully, effective opening dialogue … to make sure the folks in D.C. understand that the decisions they’re making over there have a real, genuine effect of the lives of the people that I represent,” he added, stressing the need for balance between reasonable environmental safeguards and allowing a realistic timeframe for companies to adapt to new technologies that make environmental improvements possible.

About 15-20 people took part in various portions of the event.

They also heard from WLU President Robin Capehart, who said coal made his father’s job at a Marshall County American Electric Power plant possible, providing a means for him to support their family. Capehart also worked at the Kammer plant – a job that helped pay for his college education.

Leading the session was Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Although he said there is a “lot of gloom and doom looming over the industry,” he sees hope in the fact that the state’s coal exports to nations around the world have nearly doubled in the last five years, with West Virginia providing about half of the United States’ coal exports.

Bill Raney, also representing the WVCA, said low natural gas prices have damaged the coal industry and noted coal exports actually declined about 7 percent in the first six months of 2013.

He added regulatory uncertainty has stymied investment in coal and suggested the United States should be using its indigenous coal to help rebuild the economy.

Raney also pointed to the various ways land can be used for development following mining – even the surface and mountaintop removal mining that raise objections from many people. He said former mine sites are now home to schools, Scout camps, retail developments like The Highlands, golf courses, airports and much more.

Other presenters included Jeff Herholdt of the West Virginia Department of Energy; United Coal President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Zervos, a Moundsville native; and Diego Gattesco, director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Wheeling.

A spokesman for Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, read a letter during the gathering on behalf of the congressman, who was unable to attend.